The History of Cherry Blossom

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A cherry blossom is the flower of any of several trees of genus Prunus, particularly the Japanese cherry, Prunus serrulata, which is called sakura after the Japanese .

Currently it is widely distributed, especially in the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere including Japan, China, Korea, Europe, West Siberia, India, Canada, and the United States. Along with the chrysanthemum, the cherry blossom is considered the national flower of Japan.

Many of the varieties that have been cultivated for ornamental use do not produce fruit. Edible cherries generally come from cultivars of the related species Prunus avium and Prunus cerasus. Cherry blossom are also closely related to other Prunus trees such as the almond, peach, plum and apricot and more distantly to apples, pears and roses.

In Japan, cherry blossoms symbolize clouds due to their nature of blooming en masse, besides being an enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life,an aspect of Japanese cultural tradition that is often associated with Buddhist influence,and which is embodied in the concept of mono no aware. The association of the cherry blossom with mono no aware dates back to 18th-century scholar Motoori Norinaga.The transience of the blossoms, the exquisite beauty and volatility, has often been associated with mortalityand graceful and readily acceptance of destiny and karma; for this reason, cherry blossoms are richly symbolic, and have been utilized often in Japanese art, manga, anime, and film, as well as at musical performances for ambient effect. There is at least one popular folk song, originally meant for the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), titled “Sakura“, and several pop songs. The flower is also represented on all manner of consumer goods in Japan, including kimono, stationery, and dishware.

Cherry blossoms at Himeji Castle, Japan

 

Symbolism

The Sakurakai or Cherry Blossom Society was the name chosen by young officers within the Imperial Japanese Army in September 1930 for their secret society established with the goal of reorganizing the state along totalitarian militaristic lines, via a military coup d’état if necessary.

During World War II, the cherry blossom was used to motivate the Japanese people, to stoke nationalism and militarism among the populace. Even prior to the war, they were used in propaganda to inspire “Japanese spirit,” as in the “Song of Young Japan,” exulting in “warriors” who were “ready like the myriad cherry blossoms to scatter.” In 1932, Akiko Yosano‘s poetry urged Japanese soldiers to endure sufferings in China and compared the dead soldiers to cherry blossoms. Arguments that the plans for the Battle of Leyte Gulf, involving all Japanese ships, would expose Japan to serious danger if they failed, were countered with the plea that the Navy be permitted to “bloom as flowers of death.”The last message of the forces on Peleliu was “Sakura, Sakura” — cherry blossoms. Japanese pilots would paint them on the sides of their planes before embarking on a suicide mission, or even take branches of the trees with them on their missions. A cherry blossom painted on the side of the bomber symbolized the intensity and ephemerality of life;in this way, the aesthetic association was altered such that falling cherry petals came to represent the sacrifice of youth in suicide missions to honor the emperor. The first kamikaze unit had a subunit called Yamazakura or wild cherry blossom. The government even encouraged the people to believe that the souls of downed warriors were reincarnated in the blossoms.

In its colonial enterprises, imperial Japan often planted cherry trees as a means of “claiming occupied territory as Japanese space”.

Cherry blossoms are a prevalent symbol in Irezumi, the traditional art of Japanese tattoos. In tattoo art, cherry blossoms are often combined with other classic Japanese symbols like koi fish, dragons or tigers.

History

Growing cherry trees in Washington was the brainchild of two flowering-cherry aficionados, Eliza Scidmore and Dr. David Fairchild. Scidmore, the first woman to sit on the National Geographic Society’s board of directors, tried unsuccessfully for 20 years, starting in the 1880s, to get the trees imported. Fairchild, a botanist for the Department of Agriculture, paid for 75 trees himself to test their viability. In 1907 he declared the experiment a success.

It wasn’t until 1910, however, that Washington received its first shipment of Japanese flowering cherries. The government of Japan sent 2,000 of them as a gesture of friendship, hoping in part to smooth over ongoing immigration tensions with the US. Much to the chagrin of the Taft administration, inspectors with the Department of Agriculture found the trees full of insects and diseases and recommended they be burned to protect American specimens. This nearly created a diplomatic crisis, and the decision to burn the trees required an okay from the secretaries of state and war–as well as President Taft himself.

In 1912, Tokyo mayor Yuko Ozaki gave the city 3,020 more cherry trees, which the Department of Agriculture accepted. First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, ceremonially planted the first two trees. They remain standing on the north bank of the Tidal Basin just west Independence and 17th streets.

In 1915, the US reciprocated by sending 40 of our native flowering dogwoods to Japan. Hardly a fair trade. . . .

Washington’s first cherry blossom festival took place in 1935, with the backing of the DC Council and local civic organizations.

In 1965, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson accepted a gift of 3,800 more trees from Japan.

the birds, in our opinion.

A century in, about 100 of the original 1912 trees are still standing. Since the 1960s, horticulturalists with the National Park Service and the National Arboretum have tried to preserve the trees’ genetic characteristics by replacing dying trees with genetic clones (individuals grown from cuttings of the originals).

Most of the cherry tree types are not naturally occurring: they can’t reproduce except through human intervention, either by grafting two plants together or through cutting propagation.

The cherries do yield fruit, but it’s tiny, black, and bitter, with a big pit in the center–for the birds, in our opinion.

According to Margaret Pooler, a research geneticist at the National Arboretum, the cherry trees are surprisingly tolerant of urban stresses. The most difficult things to contend with, researchers have found, are ground compaction and rising salt concentrations in the soil.

The cherry trees’ blooming period starts when 20 percent of the blossoms are open and ends when the petals fall and green leaves appear. It can last as long as 14 days but varies with wind, rain, and temperature conditions.

The peak bloom date is defined as the day on which 70 percent of the Yoshino blossoms are open. The date varies from year to year, sometimes prompting weeks of nail biting and guessing games for the National Park Service and festival organizers.

 

 

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